Bikini Kill Still Dares Ya
The riot grrrl pioneers blazed through a 25-song set at the Palace Theatre, and took time between songs to celebrate Babes in Toyland.
1:08 PM CDT on April 21, 2023
Bikini Kill don’t need me to tell you they’re good.
No really, they wrote a whole song about that in ’92, called it ”Don’t Need You,” with “you” being men generally, particularly those with opinions on the band’s looks and sound. “Does it scare you, boy?” Kathleen Hanna sneered, and judging by how many dickheads turned up at early Bikini Kill shows to heckle and harass and throw shit and just plain demonstrate their intent to do these women real physical harm, the answer sure seemed like “yeah.” Last night at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul, as though to highlight the continued relevance of that song—one of 25 Bikini Kill ripped through in 90 minutes—Hanna responded to some over-enthusiastic dude who approvingly interrupted one of her many monologues with a tart “Thank you for undermining and validating me.”
But another thing about Bikini Kill I’d like to mention before I get ahead of myself here is that they’re a lot of fun. That part sometimes gets left out of the official histories, as it often does with influential bands. Yes, in ye olde riot grrrl days, an urgency and righteous fury drove their lyrics about sexual abuse and pervasive sexism and the overall male inclination toward generic shittiness. They were true punks, after all. But there was also the exhilaration that comes from recreating yourself in real time in the company of your friends, of being just as publicly angry and noisy as the boys. And so long as you weren’t being all huffy about the contradictions of third-wave feminism or defensively dismissing the band as talentless man-haters, even us unnecessary cishet boys could overhear that.
If Hanna had a message for the multiple generations of punks and fellow travelers at the Palace last night (though honestly, true to form, she had dozens of messages) it was that you can feel rage and joy simultaneously—that you have to, actually, if you don’t want your political commitments and your relationships with those you love and your very selfhood to prematurely flame out too soon. Hanna spoke about running home from a therapy session with this message: “Hey mom, did you know you can have two feelings at the same time that are totally different?” She added, “Because in my house it was either rage or Disney.”
That was Hanna’s introduction to “I Like Fucking,” which begins with her asking “Do you believe in anything beyond troll guy reality?” then enthusiastically answering herself “I do, I do, I do.” In just over two minutes, she negotiates the complexities of desire and power and need and violence to conclude with a hard won ”I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe”—an affirmation of entitlement to the full range of human experience despite all the ugliness in the world.
Bikini Kill began promptly at their scheduled 8:15 start time—when they say “revolution girl style now” they do mean NOW—leaving some of us scrambling up the old Palace staircases when the band had already begun “New Radio” and barely making it to our seats by the time Hanna, in a pink dress with a spangly front over black tights, her hair pulled up on top, sang “Let’s wipe our cum on my parents' bed.” It was the band’s first return to St. Paul since a gig at the old Speedboat gallery, and as ever bassist Kathi Wilcox stayed silently out of the spotlight, though her basslines define the sound, and drummer Tobi Vail stepped occasionally to the mic to sing and say her piece. (Sara Landeau has replaced original guitarist Billy Karren on this reunion tour.)
Hanna remains one of rock’s great onstage gabbers, and between sets we were treated to a condensed history of Bikini Kill’s Minnesota experiences. (She’s also hella quick with a comeback “Do I seem like I have low esteem?” she asked when someone shouted out “I love you.”) At the center of those stories was Babes in Toyland, who Hanna recalled seeing for the first time at “a shack” in the middle of nowhere outside of Olympia, Washington. Vail also remembered her first Babes show, in Duluth, while she was touring in a mostly male group, and thinking, “I’m in the wrong band.”
And at the center of those Babes anecdotes was Lori Barbero. When she sang “it was like sheafs of flowers came out of her mouth,” according to Hanna, but more important was “her kindness and her generosity.” in providing the young punk with a list of promoters to book her first show. She was the blueprint for how she wanted women in music to help each other, Hanna explained, and so “Lori Barbero invented riot grrrl. By accident.”
It was their first show at the Uptown (“I hear it closed down?” Hanna said) when Bikini KIll thought they’d really made it big. “We’d been playing bars where the janitor was sweeping up while we were on stage,” Hanna said. But the lead singer of the band they opened for called them a “novelty act.” Punchline: Those headliners were an AC/DC cover band. Second punchline: When Bikini Kill later played a grade school in Duluth, their openers were… the AC/DC cover band. (Who was the mysteriously well-booked Minnesota AC/DC cover band anyway?)
“This is a punk show so it doesn’t matter if I say the words in the wrong order,” Hanna proclaimed early in the night. But even for those who hadn’t committed those lyrics to memory 30 years ago, Hanna expressed herself clearly when precise words got lost in the blare. The shriek that shatters into painful shards may be long gone, but the singer wields her various vocal devices more cannily than ever, dipping into Johnny Rotten-as-drill-sergeant grunts or rising up to her midrange Poly-Styrene-as-militant-cheerleader playground taunts and floating above that to the sweet girlish singsong of her upper range. (Her speaking voice is just as varied and musical—among other things, Hanna is an early pioneer of uptalk liberation.)
And she moved. Few if any performers are as consistently amused by the ordinary potential of their bodies’ movements. Onstage, Hanna hops, she sways her arms, she struts and shimmies and saunters. During one instrumental break she even kicked up her feet like a bored kid who doesn’t think anyone’s looking. She just physically is.
The band’s reminiscences may have looked backward, but the music felt dynamically present. Chaotic as they are, Bikini Kill songs at their gnarliest hang on to a tuneful cadence that makes the structure of verses and choruses unnecessary: Each song just blares along until it’s time for it to end. There could never be anything studied or slick about Bikini Kill, so these antique songs retain a spontaneity, like they’re being worked out as they go along, as though the band was still reinventing punk on the fly. And just like in the old days, the band switched instruments when Vail sang, with Hanna moving to bass and Wilcox to drums.
You couldn’t always guess where Hanna’s stories would end up. A riff on roller skating, which noted how her cousins had been professional skaters who owned a rink in Oregon, then narrowed in on her youth in Maryland where she’d dressed as “a cross between Matt Dillion and Kristy McNichol.” (Real Little Darlings heads know.) There she was forever upstaged by her older sister, the queen of the rink, who was nicknamed “Good TImes”—meaning that nine-year-old Kathleen became “Lil Good Times.” Hanna mentioned how grown men were always catcalling and hitting on her sister (“If you have friends who do this can you tell them to stop being so fucking gross?” she interjected), though one silver lining is that it did inspire the older Hanna to come up with a great response to these scumbags. That response, of course, was “Suck My Left One,” and that was the song that closed the band’s main set.
Different political moments call for different soundtracks, and by rights Bikini Kill should sound as musty and retro as flower-power protest songs did in the band’s heyday. But they didn’t, and Hanna even slightly regretted their staying power. “I wish our songs were all irrelevant and we felt ridiculous,” she said. Because for all the subsequent valid critiques of riot grrrl as insufficiently inclusive and intersectional, this wasn’t a night of nostalgia for the days when charismatic cis white women hogged the mic, because a Bikini Kill show has always been a invitation to pick up your own mic. The encore led with “Double Dare Ya,” infamous for its “WE ARE BIKINI KILL AND WE WANT REVOLUTION GIRL STYLE NOW!” intro but more significant in retrospect for its evergreen chorus: “Dare ya to do what you want/Dare ya to be who you will.”
In some ways that’s a harder challenge to meet in your 50s than in your 20s. From my vantage point in the balcony, where we elders belonged, I could see young bobbing femme heads appropriately situated up front. And the crowd was dotted with girls, tweens and even younger, accompanying their mothers enthusiastically, not dutifully. Hanna addressed this span of ages, advising the younger crowd “You have a long, long time to make a lotta, lotta stuff” and coming out strong against cross-generational sniping.
You win no prize for guessing that the night ended with “Rebel Girl,” a song almost too totemic of the riot grrl era, yet still so brassy and direct and alive that you could almost miss what a complex amalgam of idealization and attraction and affection and desire Hanna voices. The singer was at her most frenzied for this, though when I remember that moment, I’ll see Vail, with her bright pink hair and white-rimmed shades, bringing both sticks down on her snare during the verses, again and again and again, setting the steady pace for the long march that goes on, then detonating a cymbal-clattering explosion when the chorus storms the barricades.
This Is Not a Test
Don't Need You
I Hate Danger
In Accordance to Natural Law
Resist Psychic Death
I Like Fucking
Reject All American
Rah! Rah! Replica
Tell Me So
Suck My Left One
Double Dare Ya
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